Sarah Elizabeth Charles: Solace And Reflection

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Sarah Elizabeth Charles and Jarrett Cherner, who are married, collaborated on a new album titled Tone.

(Photo: Fanny Delsol)

As an aspiring jazz singer, the teenage Sarah Elizabeth Charles wanted to be Sarah Vaughan. But after writing a lot of tunes that she imagined Vaughan might have sung, the Massachusetts native sensed that the music was not a fully authentic expression of her artistic self. She needed to reassess her goals. And she did so when she moved to New York and enrolled at The New School.

“I was beginning to see that there was a part of my voice that I wasn’t allowing to come through,” she said in a December conversation via Zoom. “I remember during my freshman year going out to hear so much music in New York, and all of it sounded so different and all of it was jazz. I thought, ‘Maybe if I just let myself be for a little while, my voice has validity here. It just has to find its own space.’”

It has. In the nine years since finishing her New School studies, she has prospered as a purveyor of social commentary, releasing protest albums with her band, SCOPE. Complementing that work, she has lectured New School students on jazz and gender, coached members of the Sing Sing Correctional Facility musical community and generally distinguished herself as an outspoken teaching artist.

Now, as she shelters in place during the pandemic, she is raising her voice by reducing the volume. Her new release, Tone (BaldHill), is a reflective duo effort crafted with her husband, pianist Jarrett Cherner. The album, eight songs written and produced during the past four years, should calm nerves shaken by the sound and fury of that time.

“This project, for me, has been a place of solace and self-reflection and self-care,” she said.

To be sure, the album has its provocations. Cocooned in the Brooklyn apartment she shares with Cherner—and the couple’s “quarantine guru,” a cat named Raj—Charles cited “Shine On” as a tune that features both blues inflections and blunt point-making. The lyrics include this mantra: “Shine on, shine and be you.”

“‘Shine On’ is that song of self-love in the face of somebody telling you that you shouldn’t have it,” Charles explained.

But the album’s tone generally is more plaintive than provocative. “Hanging On To Time” sustains a compelling mood of melancholy. It opens with the words of the title perched on the first five notes of a minor scale, and it closes with the melody hanging on the title words of a Robert Frost poem on which the tune is based, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

The themes are not all tinged with sadness. If “Hanging On” stresses time’s inevitable passing, “Out Loud” suggests that we can at least change our relationship to it. With a cool, clear and remarkably elastic delivery, Charles implores people to seize the day, her vowels stretched endlessly as the tempo crawls beneath the words: “If we wait then time can/ Slow right down.”

“That moment is less about slowing time down and more about slowing ourselves down and allowing ourselves to be present in whatever time’s dealing us at any given moment,” Charles explained. “That’s part of what took us so long with [the album]. We were just trying to be as present as possible and prioritize our relationship above anything else.”

Navigating the creative process, Cherner said, had not always been easy: “Part of working together and being a couple is negotiating familiar routes of conflict that don’t necessarily have to do with the music but have to do with the relationship. We took some advice from a dear friend: No matter what happens, the relationship always comes first.”

The two musicians’ collaborative efforts were so intertwined that they share songwriting credits on seven of the eight tunes. During the composition process, Charles generally devised the lyrics while Cherner drafted the music, but the artists sometimes would change roles, with him singing and her playing piano, in order to spark new ideas.

Sharing physical space, they shaped the sonic environments with similar intimacy while quarantined. They laid down basic tracks in July 2019 at Big Orange Sheep studio in Brooklyn and did additional recording at home in 2020 leading up to the album’s release Nov. 6 via Cherner’s label. The hope, he said, is that the label can “grow with us as we continue to release more music.”

That forthcoming music might include a document of free improvisations, like the ambitious set the duo produced for the Nov. 7 edition of The Jazz Gallery’s livestream series, The Online Lockdown Sessions. Other options include a record with strings or a standards album—the latter an intriguing prospect, given the experience Charles has gained since her would-be incarnation as Vaughan. Her mind, she said, is open: “I just want people to hear our music.” DB



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